Book Title: The Catcher In The Rye
Author: J.D. Salinger
Original Publication Date: 1951
Edition Read: 1972, Bantam Books
Total Pages: 214
Genre: Classic Young Adult/Coming Of Age
Reason Read: Result of a rummage through my Classics stash
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though. I wouldn’t mind calling this Isak Dinesen up. And Ring Lardner, except that D.B. told me he’s dead. You take that book Of Human Bondage, by Somerset Maugham, though. I read it last summer. It’s a pretty good book and all, but I wouldn’t want to call Somerset Maugham up. I don’t know. He just isn’t the kind of guy I’d want to call up, that’s all. I’d rather call old Thomas Hardy up. I like that Eustacia Vye.” – Pages 18-19, Chapter 3
Holden Caulfield is a sensitive dude. He is also one of the more annoying narrators I’ve had the pleasure of listening to since, oh, I don’t know, probably John Updike’s Rabbit. Maybe I should stop reading books about young men who have lost their way in the period of the late 1940’s to 1950’s trying to escape Pennsylvania. There is very little for me to relate to there. These guys are confused, cowardly and trying very hard to avoid growing up. They don’t come of age. They turn their heels on it. But the men who wrote their stories wrote them incredibly well. Which keeps me turning the pages. And giving their characters a chance to improve in my eyes. I’ll say this about old Holden. He’s got a moral compass. He respects women, loves children and can pull off the fashion choice of a red hunting cap in NYC. Quite the polar opposite of that jerk Rabbit.
The Catcher in the Rye must have been assigned reading to me in high school because my paperback copy of the book has my maiden name and old phone number written inside the jacket. I only recalled that the narrator’s name was Holden Caulfield and he was a teenager who bitched an awful lot. My adult re-read confirmed my limited recollection. Sixteen-year-old Holden has just been expelled from prep school in Pennsylvania for flunking everything but English. This is the fourth time this has happened. It is just before Christmas break. So although he is eager to ditch school, he is not eager to show up on his parents’ doorstep in NYC letting them know he’s let them down again. So he takes the train back to New York and stays in a hotel for a few days instead to avoid the family drama.
Holden, as his younger sister, Phoebe, so succinctly puts it, hates everything. But in a nice enough way. He isn’t generally rude, and on the few occasions when he is, he recognizes it and regrets it immediately. He thinks everyone is a phony. He doesn’t want to be a phony. But in his eyes, once you stop being a little kid, the world pretty much turns you into a phony. The only way to avoid it is to run away and live by yourself on the edge of wilderness. Not in the wilderness. He’d still like to have the comforts of the phony world every now and then.
Holden reminds me of the way my younger brother used to always complain about musicians becoming sell-outs. My brother only liked music that was made by people no one had ever heard of. And once they got discovered and became more mainstream, he hated the direction their music went. He felt that they sold out and became famous and let it go to their heads and their creative output suffered. As an undiscovered drummer, his music was superior to the crap you heard out there everywhere. Holden feels that he is superior to all of the phonies he encounters at every turn. He is true to himself and his individuality. He buys a ridiculous looking red hunting cap which seems to prove this point. Well, not exactly. He is ashamed to wear it out in public where he might run into someone he knows. It makes him feel better to think that everyone else is the phony – not him.
Holden’s real problem is that he is a teenager. And he feels alone. His closest friend is his 10-year-old sister. His respected big brother lives in California, all grown up and being a phony in Hollywood. His other brother died from cancer when Holden was 13. He does not seem to have been able to let go of how happy his life was as a young boy before his brother died. Now he has moved on, physically. Emotionally, he’s stuck in the past, scared to catch up to his body.
Like most teen boys, he can’t avoid thinking about sex. He’s a virgin, looking to get over that hump, but annoyed by his physical need. He wants companionship with a woman he admires and cares for. But his libido doesn’t feel the same way. Holden’s sexual internal struggles represent a good portion of his narrative. But the real issue for Holden is that he is bored and alone. He feels like an outsider, even though he seems to be well received by attractive girls and cool kids at school. He is always sympathetic to, or at least extremely curious about, the misfits of society. It seems that though he could be accepted by the “desirable” people in society, he would rather relate to the outcasts. Because he is handsome, intelligent and from a family with substantial means, he doesn’t fit the outcast mode. I think this may be why he sabotages his Prep school path again and again. He rebels against the preferred path in order to have something in common with those he feels are less fortunate but more valid.
Holden creates a world of loneliness for himself by dismissing everyone and everything around him as phony. He craves attention and love, but never trusts that it is real – or perhaps that he deserves it. He wants to be a kid. Not an adult. He doesn’t want to worry about sex. Or education. Or change. He wants to be like the exhibits at the museum he has visited throughout his life. Static. Constant. Frozen in place. Not unlike his deceased brother, left alone in the cemetery.
Holden is loved by many a teen in angst. And adults who wish they could go back to a simpler time. He annoyed the crap out of me. Because I fell for his act, in the beginning. But at the end, I wanted to give him a hug. Because anyone whose dream job is to catch children who play too close to the edge of a rye field’s cliff – a protector of all that is sweet and innocent – can’t be a phony. And I would have liked calling up old Salinger. Updike, not so much.